BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a time when reporters did not constantly watch their words. One journalist wrote from the campaign trail in 1972 that, (quote) "Working for Ed Muskie was something like being locked in a rolling boxcar with a vicious 200 pound water rat," and that, (quote) "There's no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is until you've followed him around for a while," and that Richard Nixon, (quote) "Speaks to the werewolf in all of us." Hunter S. Thompson, who killed himself last week at the age of 67, was known for taking drugs and firing guns, but he was venerated for his ability to conjure a kind of reportorial hyper-reality. A character based on him recurred in the Doonesbury comic strip and in two films, played by Bill Murray and, here, by Johnny Depp. [CLIP PLAYS]
JOHNNY DEPP AS THOMPSON: It was time to get grounded; to ponder this rotten assignment and figure out how to cope with it. It was time to do the job. Those of us who had been up all night were in no mood for coffee and donuts. [AIRPLANE PASSES OVER] We wanted strong drink. We were, after all, [GUNFIRE] the absolute creme of the national sporting press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thompson was the gonzo journalist - his phrase - working on the outermost extreme of the "new journalism" practiced by such writers as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, who coined the term. For instance, Wolfe, a caustic social critic, nailed the phenomenon called "radical chic" after Leonard Bernstein threw a fundraising party for the Black Panthers. Gay Talese took a personal and literary approach to explorations of the Mafia and sexuality. He joins me now. Welcome to the show.
GAY TALESE: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you write to earn the label of "new journalist?"
GAY TALESE: What was new, I guess to Tom Wolfe, who christened me, was I broke into private life. You see, the fiction writers were the people who wrote about private life. In the '60, I wanted to write about private life, too, and I wanted to write about people that weren't necessarily newsworthy, or, if they were newsworthy, were not in the news. That was taking the tools of fiction, but, in my case, writing verifiable non-fiction. I was writing stuff that you could check. If I made up stuff, you could find out. I used real names. No composite characters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you could check it, and you put yourself front and center in your well-known books Honor Thy Father, for instance, and Thy Neighbor's Wife. Thy Neighbor's Wife was about adultery.
GAY TALESE: That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you engaged in it.
GAY TALESE: Oh, well, I'm not going to plead the Fifth here, but I'll tell you that I don't stand as St. Francis of Assisi on your show today. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I mean it was part of your book.
GAY TALESE: It was part of my being as well. It was part of my curiosity that could be on a wayward course, but I would go with the momentum, and so did Wolfe do that when he wrote about Leonard Bernstein's cocktail party, and so did Hunter Thompson do that a lot. It is a matter of going in there and taking a chance on being disliked for what you do, and taking your lumps, and not being afraid.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You really miss that, don't you - that kind of journalism?
GAY TALESE: Well, I mean, it was for us probably the most thrilling time, because we got away from the rigidity of daily newspapering, which we all came out of. Just the five W's - just the facts, ma'am. That kind of stuff. It was breaking away from that very restrictive mode of just telling what was defined by your elders to be newsworthy. You see, journalism was supposed to be on the sidelines. People in the press box are reporting upon the activities of those of the performers. In the case of Hunter Thompson, he was one of those who put himself in the story. He was a man who was messing up the territory of other people by his mere appearance, so he was a character, writing about himself as he sees other things in other people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And in the hands of a master, and I think we would agree Hunter Thompson was, you think you can get somehow closer to the truth of a situation? I recall Frank Mankiewicz who worked for the McGovern presidential campaign back in 1972 famously said that Thompson's reports from the trail were the least factual and most accurate account of that race.
HUNTER THOMPSON: Muskie was not himself. It was noted that he developed a tendency to roll his R's wildly during TV interviews; that his thought patterns had become strangely fragmented, and that not even his closest advisors could predict when he might suddenly spiral off into babbling rages or the old comatose funks.
GAY TALESE: What Hunter Thompson did was write about some personages in public life - aspiring characters in the political world, for example, and bring to the vision of them a rather enlarged, if not entirely verifiable, portrait that probably reflected what Mankiewicz means when he talks about a larger truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sometimes a fact is a fact, and it's pretty well known that Hunter Thompson didn't care much about facts. Is it even right to call Thompson a journalist at all?
GAY TALESE: Is it right to call the foreign correspondent in Paris of the New York Times a journalist? Journalism is not objective. So whether Thompson wants to be called a journalist or whether Arthur Sulzberger's whole family is in journalism is debatable. [LAUGHTER] The paper is dominated by the judgment of people who control the print. And so, if Thompson or anybody else wants to go on the campaign trail, they have as much right to present what they see and feel and believe to be the private attitude of people who are in the news as anyone who is just dealing with the transcript. I'm not certainly defending Hunter Thompson. He's not at all what I purport to be, but who cares what I purport to be? [LAUGHTER] You are talking about a particular way of looking at the world, and their eyes and their sensibilities are such that we respect them, or maybe we disagree with them and respect them, or maybe we loathe them, because they tell us what we don't want to know…
HUNTER THOMPSON: Yeah. Nixon was always convinced that there was a massive liberal conspiracy to get him. Well, he was right. Yeah. And I was part of that. And I'm proud of it.
GAY TALESE: We have a message bearer called the late Hunter Thompson who really did get his point of view across, sometimes with a thrust to the noggin, but it was a strongly-wielded piece of work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you find that journalists today are too timid, and do you feel a void and the lack of a voice like Hunter Thompson?
GAY TALESE: Oh, god - don't get me started. I can barely read the paper today, I'm so angry. I mean I think that the Washington press is an all-time low.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would Hunter Thompson's voice be a kind of antidote to that?
GAY TALESE: Yes. I would certainly think so. I don't know what they'd do with him; they'd probably bring him up on charges. We wish we would have some courageous, angry but eloquent voice. We have nothing like that today. Why? Because people are, number one, correct. There is not fear and loathing; there is just fear in journalism of not being on the inside, not getting on, on the right plane with the president; being X'd out of the circle of power.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gay Talese, thank you very much.
GAY TALESE: Okay, Miss Gladstone. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gay Talese is regarded as one of the founders of New Journalism and is the author of Honor Thy Father and Thy Neighbor's Wife.
HUNTER THOMPSON: I don't know. I just try to get as close to the - what I'm writing about as possible in order to find out what's really happening, and a lot of times it's, [LAUGHS] it's weirder than I - it appears in my stories. You know, the truth is usually stranger than fiction. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, is the truth out there? Or are they just conspiracy theories? This is On the Media, from NPR. [FUNDING CREDITS]